China’s corrupt ‘tigers’ tipped to be a rarer sight but plenty of ‘flies’ left to swat

After five years, Xi Jinping’s battle against corruption is showing no signs of slowing but it is running out of high-profile targets, observers suggest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 12:19pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive is likely to focus less on “tigers” – or senior officials – during his second term in office but there will be no respite for rank-and-file cadres, or “flies”, experts said ahead of a plenary session of the country’s graft-busting agency in Beijing.

About 120 members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection will hold the final plenum of their current term on Monday and Tuesday, before a new line-up is announced at the five-yearly Communist Party national congress, which opens on October 18.

The two-day session is expected to review the agency’s work report for the past five years, which will later be submitted to the party congress for endorsement.

Its members will have much to consider after the CCDI spearheaded an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign that has brought down more than 250 senior officials – including military generals and corporate executives – and seen about 1.4 million cadres disciplined, according to official figures.

Communist Party expels former high-flyer Sun Zhengcai in countdown to key congress

Xi has repeatedly pledged that the clampdown on corruption and political disloyalty – launched soon after he took the party’s helm in late 2012 – will continue. In July, while outlining the broad agenda for his next term, Xi told the party’s ruling elite that the “comprehensive strengthening of party governance” would always be on the agenda, and that they should not be “complacent or blindly optimistic” about what the campaign had achieved in the past five years.

Although the party has fought graft for decades, the crackdown initiated by Xi is defined by its focus on high-level corruption.

Breaking the unwritten rule

The scale on which senior officials, of vice-ministerial rank and above, have been targeted is unprecedented in the history of communist China. Xi also broke the unwritten rule that serving and former members of the Politburo Standing Committee were exempt from criminal investigation when he oversaw the expulsion from the party of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the all-powerful committee who oversaw China’s security, intelligence and judicial systems. Zhou is now serving a life sentence for corruption.

Critics of the campaign say it has been used to weed out political rivals and crush dissent within the party.

Corrupt officials holding back China’s drive to eliminate poverty

Despite Xi’s determination to continue the fight against corruption, some pundits said the “tiger hunt” was unlikely to be of the same ferocity in the president’s second term, as many of the country’s highest ranking officials were, or soon would be, his own men.

At the upcoming 19th congress, Xi is expected to stack the powerful 200-strong Central Committee and its top decision-making bodies – the Politburo and its Standing Committee – with loyal supporters, many of whom have been fast-tracked for promotion in recent years.

“[Xi] now faces the possibility of having to take out people he selected and promoted ... [which] might be seen as a sign that he failed to adequately screen them before selecting them, or that they were not deterred by the anti-corruption campaign and Xi’s vows to eradicate corruption,” said Andrew Wedeman, professor of political science at Georgia State University in the United States.

“Conversely, if Xi has been careful in selecting honest officials, and the anti-corruption drive has been successful in convincing them that engaging in corruption is a bad idea, the number of tigers would – in theory – fall over time, hence making it less likely that Xi’s ‘hunters’ would be able to find more big tigers,” said Wedeman, who is writing a book on the anti-corruption campaign.

China renews call for US help on cybercrime, extradition of fugitive corruption suspects

Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of Peking University’s Clean Government Centre, agreed.

“Since the 18th party congress, most of the problematic high-flying officials have been eradicated. The officials who remain have either passed the test or been newly promoted by the top leader,” he said.

As a result, over the next five years, the focus of the corruption crackdown would shift to rooting out graft at the local level, meaning more flies could be caught, Zhuang said.

Fighting corruption, curbing growth

One of the biggest criticisms of Xi’s anti-corruption drive is that it has damaged economic growth by curtailing consumption and investment. As well as cracking down on official extravagance – from lavish gifts to expensive dinners – it has left many local officials reluctant to approve new investment projects out of fear that doing so would lead to graft accusations against them.

As a result, businesses have complained that they cannot communicate with government officials, who turn down not only gifts and banquet invitations but also legitimate business requests.

One of China’s 100 most wanted corruption fugitives gives himself up

The party is not unaware of the damage this unintended side effect has had. In August, the official Qiushi Journal warned that when officials avoided business dealings out of fear of being targeted by the anti-graft campaign, “the consequence is equally serious – and the impact equally damaging” as corruption.

But Wedeman said that the fear factor would likely diminish as the campaign rolled on and officials got used to the idea of conducting business deals legally.

“If the number of flies doesn’t rise significantly, at some point, officials will start reassessing the risk [they face],” he said.

The need to meet economic growth targets as part of their annual performance evaluation would also force people into action, he said.

Despite the success of the anti-graft campaign, a businessman from eastern China’s Zhejiang province, whose company sells textiles to Europe, said it was still common to take officials out for meals, albeit in a more low-key manner.

“In the past, officials of all ranks would ask me [to treat them]. I spend less on that now and the profile is much lower,” the 54-year-old said, asking not to be identified.

He said he did not expect things to change much in the next five years.

“Every stage [of business] requires officials’ help, because without a connection, we have no idea what a certain policy means or how a certain regulation will be carried out,” he said. “A slight tightening of the crackdown won’t have much effect because these practices are ingrained in the system.”

Creating a monster

Zhu Jiangnan, an associate professor at Hong Kong University whose research focuses on corruption, said she expected the anti-graft drive to slow down and become more of a routine supervision.

“Instead of the current intensive ‘war’, they [the party] will want to rely more on institutional means to control corruption, such as central inspection teams and possibly the national supervision commission,” she said, referring to the new overarching anti-graft body that will combine the powers of the CCDI and other graft-fighting departments in the procuratorate and government.

Pilot schemes are already under way in Beijing and the provinces of Zhejiang and Shanxi, while the national commission is expected to be established in March at the annual gathering of the country’s legislature. More province-level commissions are likely to be set up down the track.

China involved in 3,000 Interpol investigations, state media says

While the party’s anti-graft bodies have the authority to discipline only party members, the new commission will have jurisdiction over all major public organisations – including schools and hospitals – and their non-Communist Party members.

Li Ling, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna who has been studying the anti-graft campaign, said the new commissions would “significantly increase the party-state’s anti-corruption investigative capacity and allow more cases to be processed, and processed more quickly”.

Introducing such a reform would not be easy, however, Peking University’s Zhuang said.

“How to balance the interests of different departments and how to unify the thinking of teams from those departments will be a major challenge,” he said.

China’s Communist Party expels former provincial chief for graft

Wedeman agreed, saying that while merging departments and institutions could improve coordination and efficiency to some extent, it might also create new problems.

“The power of the discipline inspection commissions lies in shuanggui, [a disciplinary process] which means they can detain people indefinitely, and where the burden of proof is on the accused. That gives them tremendous leverage,” he said.

“The procuratorate on the other hand is subject to criminal procedure law. Putting those two together you kind of create a monster institution that has both judicial and extrajudicial power.”

This week’s CCDI meeting will also approve the list of nominations for the commission’s next membership, which will be signed off at the party congress.

Mayor of southern Chinese boom town under investigation for corruption

CCDI chief Wang Qishan, one of Xi’s trusted allies and arguably the most feared man in the party, has been the formidable face and galvanising force of the campaign over the past five years. However, at 69, he has reached the party’s unofficial retirement age, and the chances of him remaining at the helm of the anti-graft drive are looking increasingly slim, sources say.

Li Zhanshu, Xi’s chief of staff and another prominent ally, is favourite to replace Wang, though observers say the change is unlikely to have any major implications for the campaign.

“I don’t think it will have a dramatic impact on the anti-corruption crackdown because ultimately it is Xi who will decide whether to keep the intensity high or to back off,” Wedeman said.

Zhuang said that given the scale of the crackdown under Wang, it would be difficult for his successor to make any breakthroughs.

“What he can do is to carry out the policies and reforms established by Wang, such as rolling out the National Supervision Commission plan,” he said.

Li from Vienna said the CCDI’s functions would not change, whoever took over the reins.

“After the 19th party congress it will continue to perform the tasks of overseeing the anti-corruption campaign and policing party discipline ... with or without Wang Qishan,” she said.

Additional reporting by Viola Zhou